Sat, Feb 19, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Seven arrested in Belfast heist probe

MONEY TRAIL The suspects, including one Sinn Fein official, were being held and interrogated after police recovered at least US$4.4 million at a home near Cork


Police have said they arrested seven people, including an official from the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, and seized millions in cash that they suspect was stolen from a Belfast bank, a crime that badly damaged Northern Ireland's peace process.

Police mounted several raids targeting Irish Republican Army money-laundering operations across the Republic of Ireland on Thursday. They recovered at least US$4.4 million from one house in the village of Farran, 15km west of the city of Cork in southwest Ireland, and arrested a self-employed financial consultant and his wife.

At another property in the Douglas suburb of Cork, police arrested a man and seized approximately US$155,000 -- all of it in notes produced by the Northern Bank, which was the target of the world's biggest bank robbery Dec. 20.

Police also arrested a fourth man in a raid in the nearby town of Passage West but found no illicit cash there.

Police said the operation began Wednesday night, when they arrested three men at Dublin's Heuston train station.

Detectives had been trailing a suspected major money-launderer from Cork who, after he stepped off the train in Dublin, was allegedly caught delivering a suitcase containing US$122,000 in laundered euro notes to two men from Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Police said a team of more than 100 detectives, including specialists from the national force's fraud squad and criminal assets section, had planned the raids for weeks in hopes of finding the US$50 million stolen from Northern Bank.

And in a sign of the expanding scope of the operation, after nightfall Thursday police raided more properties in the midlands counties of Meath and Westmeath. Police reported no further arrests or cash seizures.

Police also surrounded several other unoccupied Cork-area homes, as well as at least one Cork business.

Police couldn't immediately confirm whether any of the seized money was stolen from the Northern Bank, but were particularly hopeful the money recovered in Douglas was.

Senior detectives from Northern Ireland's police force -- who have failed so far to charge anyone with the bank robbery or recover any of the missing cash -- planned to go to Irish police headquarters in Dublin on Friday to help examine the seized money and other evidence.

"This is a massive operation, and our top priority must be first and foremost to finish the searches at hand before we examine the cash itself in greater detail," said one southern Irish detective, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

He said officers were not due to begin comparing serial numbers on the seized cash with the records provided by Northern Ireland police until yesterday. About two-thirds of the cash stolen from Northern Bank was newly printed notes bearing the bank's distinctive design.

Police, in keeping with usual practice, refused to identify any of the arrested people by name. Under Irish law, police were allowed to interrogate all seven without charge until last night or this morning.

Sinn Fein officials continued Thursday to deny any involvement by the IRA or their own party in the Northern Bank heist. In a statement, the party said the public should not "rush to judgment" but should "exercise caution ... and allow the truth to come out."

But the British and Irish governments and all other political parties in both parts of Ireland have blamed the IRA, which is Ireland's most proficient robber of banks.

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